PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly receives reams of written testimony each year from people arguing for or against bills on topics ranging from guns to abortion, from hate crimes to “love letters.”
But while the House of Representatives posts all of those documents online, making a wealth of information readily available on the General Assembly website, the Senate does not.
More than a year has passed since the House began posting written testimony online amid the pandemic, and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, plans to continue the practice because it has been proven be “an enormous help to the public and to the media,” House spokesman Larry Berman said this week.
“So many awful things happened during the pandemic, but this was actually a good thing that resulted from the pandemic,” Berman said. “Anybody interested in a bill can see the testimony for and against, listed by bill number and date. It really is a big win for transparency.”
But the Senate, led by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, does not plan to begin posting written testimony, Senate spokesman Greg Pare said this week.
The Senate receives written comments from thousands of Rhode Islanders every year, and posting those documents online could have “unintended consequences,” Pare said.
“In some of this testimony, members of the public recount very personal experiences in order to help lawmakers make informed decisions on particular pieces of legislation,” he said. “Sometimes, individuals choose to write precisely because they do not want to appear before television cameras to tell their personal stories.”
People might not expect their written statements to be posted on a public website, Pare said. And, he said, “The posting of such statements online may have a chilling effect on the willingness of some individuals to provide testimony that would otherwise assist committee members in making informed decisions.”
But, Pare said, “Written committee testimony is public record, and as such it is always provided upon request in a timely manner.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, called for the Senate to follow the House’s lead and place those documents online. He said the same employees who run the House website run the Senate website.
“So it’s simply a question of will,” he said. “The House is willing to be more transparent than the Senate is willing to be.”
Posting the documents online is an enormous benefit to the public, Marion said. “The value is that the broader public has as chance to see who is weighing in at the legislature and what they are saying,” he said. “It’s worth adding that for many people, particularly those who are immunocompromised, returning to a crowded State House is not an option.”
Marion rejected the Senate’s rationale for not posting written testimony, saying he is aware of no harm done by the posting of House testimony.
“I continue to see people pour their heart out to the House of Representatives,” he said. “If this is a real problem, there are easy ways to mitigate it without making it hard for the public to get information that they admit is public.”
For one thing, Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act already allows for confidential correspondence between a constituent and their elected representatives, Marion said. But this is different, he said, noting the Senate is refusing to post written testimony sent to full legislative committees about pending legislation.
Marion said the Senate could put a disclaimer on committee agendas notifying the public that their written testimony is a public document and will be posted.
And the “Committee Documents” section of the Assembly website already notifies people that “Written testimony submitted to any committee of the House of Representatives will be posted to and will be accessible on the General Assembly website.”
Berman said the House hasn’t received any complaints about written testimony being posted online, and no one has requested anonymity. To the contrary, he said, the House has received “excellent feedback” about the decision to post documents online.
Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, called the House decision to put written testimony online a “very positive step,” saying, “It promotes transparency in the political process, and it is an important public service.”
Brown urged the Senate to take the same step. If people are concerned about privacy, they already have the ability to contact their legislators privately, and they could submit written comments to a full committee anonymously, he said.
But, Brown said, “The vast majority of people submitting written testimony are not expecting it to be private. It is providing information to a public body that is meeting publicly on public issues.” And, he said, “It is the public that loses when all this testimony becomes difficult to obtain.”
Plus, if the Senate is willing to provide written testimony upon request, those documents are not considered confidential to begin with, he said.
“The ACLU is an organization that cares deeply about open government and just as much about privacy,” Brown said. “But in this instance, it isn’t close to say that the public interest in seeing testimony provided to a public body clearly outweighs any privacy interests that an individual might have, especially when they are free to submit testimony anonymously.”
Pare said the Senate is “committed to transparency and making improvements wherever possible, particularly during the pandemic.”
For example, the Senate has livestreamed hearings that can be televised for several years, and this year it began recording and posting the audio of hearings in rooms that are not equipped for broadcasts. The Senate now has two rooms equipped for televised hearings — Room 313 and the Senate Lounge — and it has selected an architect to reconfigure Room 211 for televised hearings, he said.
Marion acknowledged the lack of sufficient hearing rooms limits the ability to broadcast some hearings, but he said the Assembly has a lot of money at its disposal and it could invest more in projects to promote public access and transparency.